Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies

The Indian elite’s reaction to Bal Thackeray’s death raises profoundly disturbing question, argues Rohit Chopra.

With news breaking earlier this evening of Bal Thackeray’s death, the movers and shakers of Indian society have been in overdrive as have been their lesser-known followers, minions, and acolytes on Twitter. The event is being milked for all it is worth by news organizations, corporate sponsors, assorted media personalities engaging in “me-too” memories, and political organizations trying either to generate political capital from it or, at the very least, seeking not to alienate some imagined Hindu/ Maharashtrian/ Mumbaikar voter sentiment by appearing too critical of Thackeray.

The world of Indian mediapersons, the political establishment, and the charmed circle of Indian celebrities have been expressing their shock and grief even as they have been marveling at Thackeray’s greatness. In perfect concert with one another, these three incestuously interconnected sectors of Indian society–which feed off and sustain each other–are colluding in a massive act of amnesia. The holy trinity of Indian elites is refusing to address Bal Thackeray’s culpability in the deaths of Hindus and Muslims in the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay, the lengthy record of Shiv Sena violence and threats against Tamilians, Gujaratis, and UPites, the Sena’s collusion with industrialists to break the backs of mill workers and unions in Bombay in the 1970s, the degradation of the political culture of Maharashtra and Mumbai, and the general destruction of the city’s cosmopolitan culture.

When these fundamental, defining aspects of Bal Thackeray’s life and career are acknowledged by commentators, they are immediately balanced–according to some spurious notion of journalistic objectivity, I suspect–by paeans to his personal charisma, political acumen, ability to gauge the pulse of the people, and so on. Or they are subsumed within larger narratives that efface or mitigate the violence. (He was good and bad / He was an enigma / He was sweet to me / He was a bundle of contradictions or a complex figure).

Rajdeep Sardesai’s tweets say it all:

Gave me an interview in 1988 as a cub reporter. Was generous with his time and thoughts. Offered me beer too! RIP #Balasahed [sic]

Tiger, Godfather, Mumbai icon, hero for many, villain for others. Balasaheb Thackeray RIP.

Most bizarrely from Sardesai, the suggestion that Mumbai might be shut today because of “respect” for Thackeray.

When Delhi netas die, a city doesn’t shut down out of either fear/respect. Mumbai does. What does that say? Gnight.

Anyone who has experienced any bandh in any Indian city knows that the cause is usually not some spontaneous expression of independently-felt love for a political leader or party that expresses itself in an act of collective intelligence or emotion like a flash mob performing “Gangam Style.”

The Indian media prides itself on its independence, its critical eye, its ability to speak truth to power. Indian celebrities fancy themselves socially responsible intellectuals. Indian politicians routinely remind the world of the glorious vibrancy and dynamism of the “world’s largest democracy.” But neither the conventions of in-house obituary boilerplate nor the pithy wisdom of the tweets emanating from the finest minds in Indian media, celebrityhood, and politics have spoken today in any honest way about Thackeray’s role in one of most disgraceful episodes in the history of independent India–the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslim communities in 1992 and 1993. When they have pointed to Thackeray’s involvement, they have refused to ask the difficult but obvious questions that follow; questions about justice, rights, accountability, and rule of law, but also about tolerance, coexistence, and our responsibility to our fellow citizens.

The list of those participating in what can only be called a soft-pedaling of Bal Thackeray’s legacy, through this Fox News style “Fair and Balanced” approach, is a veritable who’s who of contemporary Indian political, social, and cultural life. The President and Prime Minister of India; politicians across parties; Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and other cricketers; any number of Bollywood actors, directors, and producers who queued up to meet him as he lay on his deathbed; and reputed journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, and Vir Sanghvi. Dutt, on leave at the time, did not cover Thackeray’s funeral on television.  Yet her brief comments on Twitter (here and here) in response to arguably the biggest Indian news story of the day broadly conformed to the same pattern, in my view. They did not transcend nor were critical enough of the dominant elite discourse about Thackeray, a mixture of equivocation, amnesia, and silence.

This is the real legacy of Bal Thackeray. To make political violence so routine that it ceases to outrage. To make the strategy of scapegoating and targeting particular ethnic, religious, or political groups part of the calculus of everyday politics. To make fear and intimidation a legitimate, accepted part of political leadership. And to constantly remind any potential critic, in media or otherwise, of the threat of violent reprisal for saying something that Thackeray and his thugs might not appreciate.

No less part of Thackeray’s legacy is the fact that the political establishment, world of Bombay celebrities, and mediapersons who fawned over him when he was alive as much as they are doing now appear to have quiescently accepted all of this. The curious insistence on journalists addressing Bal Thackeray as ‘saheb’ — imagine, for instance, an article beginning with the words, “Herr Hitler, responsible for the death of millions of German citizens”–merely reflects this legacy.

In recent years, observers on the political situation in Maharashtra have sometimes described the Shiv Sena as a spent force, one that was condemned to lose its long-term political battles because there was no coherent object that it was fighting for. But in all these other poisonous and alarmingly permanent ways there is no doubt that Bal Thackeray won.

The free pass given to Bal Thackeray today also tells us something about the pathologies of Indian life that produced and made Bal Thackeray possible: pathologies shared across those who identify as secular and those who rant against pseudo-secularists; pathologies that unite the South Bombay whisky-drinking, rugby-playing, Bombay-Gym types with Dadar Hindu colony sons-of-the-soil; pathologies that allow diasporic Hindu nationalists in Silicon Valley and Shiv Sena footsoldiers alike to believe that they are the victims of a secret cabal of Muslims, Marxists, and Macaulayites. Thackeray did not, then, come out of nowhere. He was not the creation simply of disaffected subaltern Maharashtrian communities or of middle-class Maharashtrian communities who felt outsiders had snatched what was their due. He represented something central in Indian political society–not an essentialist, ahistorical tendency but a historically produced capacity for using violence as a form of political reason, the absence of a coherent vision of solidarity that could respect similarity and difference, and the many deep failures of the postcolonial Indian state that our exceptionalist pieties about Indian tolerance, coexistence, and secularism often obscure.

And no, we do not need to be silent on any of this just because Bal Thackeray died earlier today. I doubt any Shiv Sainiks or Thackeray himself spent a minute thinking in silence about any Muslim killed in the 1992-1993 riots in which the Shiv Sena played a key role. As Vir Sanghvi’s article on Thackeray, posthumously anointing him the “uncrowned king of Mumbai” reminds us, Thackeray’s chief objection to Mani Ratnam’s representation of him in the film Bombay was that his cinematic alter-ego expressed regret at the riots.

It is a disgrace that Bombay is shut today. It is a disgrace that Thackeray is being wrapped in the national tricolor. It is a disgrace that he is being given state honors in his death. And it is a disgrace that none of our political leaders, celebrities, or media personalities seem to think any of this is a disgrace. And that if they do they are terrified of saying so.

The Stain of Memory

Rohit Chopra continues the series on South Asia with a reflection on the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Close to three decades after the pogroms, most of those responsible for the violence have not been brought to justice.

In 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards, gangs of Hindus led by Congress leaders fanned out across Delhi hunting for Sikhs. Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L. Bhagat, Lalit Maken, and Jagdish Tytler were alleged, variously, to have had prior knowledge of the attacks, planned, or led the mobs.

The neighborhoods of east Delhi known colloquially as jamnapaar or across-the-Jamuna witnessed some of the worst violence. If such violence, already at the limit of comprehension, can be measured or comparatively assessed.

My mother, brother, and I had stayed in east Delhi in the early 1980s while my father was working overseas. We had lived for a few months in Nirman Vihar, a nondescript colony at the edge of Shakarpur. Shakarpur was an agglomeration of unfinished brick structures that stayed unfinished as the locality mutated into a ever-more dense and crowded iteration of itself, a perfect symbol of east Delhi’s arrested, beleaguered, modernity. We had later moved a mile down the road to C-Block Preet Vihar where my grandparents had built an extraordinarily uncomfortable three-storied house.

There was exactly one shop in C-Block Preet Vihar, which sold bread, milk, eggs, Campa Cola, batteries, and notebooks. For everything else we had to walk to Nirman Vihar or Shakarpur. Right on the border between the neighborhoods, on the northeast corner of the road separating them, stood a small chicken stall owned by a Sikh. Bright orange roasted chickens dangled from the awning above the shop. A movie theater, Radhu Palace, was located down the road.
Continue reading “The Stain of Memory”

Socialism, Secularism and the Shifting Goalposts of Indian Democracy

CM announces a series of writings on political life and public culture in South Asia, guest curated, gathered, and edited by Sanyasi. The idea is to present here a range of perspectives –by writers, journalists, academics, artists, and others–on the entanglements of culture, public life, and the political in and about the vast swath of humanity that lives in that impossible imagined community called South Asia. Inaugurating the series is Prayaag Akbar’s  examination of the place of secularism and socialism in Indian democracy. The essay earlier appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Of the five descriptors for the Indian state enthroned in the Constitution – ‘sovereign’, ‘socialist’, ‘secular’, ‘democratic’ and ‘republic’ – which one would you say our polity, in this the 65th year
of its making, has most failed to achieve? Is India any, or all, of these things?

Along three of these parameters there can be no arguing that India has established itself well, even irrevocably, in the years since Independence. It is certainly a republic: matters and debates of state are of and for the public, no matter how many times critics point to the overreach of a few political families. It is also undoubtedly sovereign on both domestic and foreign policy. This debate reaches most urgency when India forms a loose alliance with a state of far greater political power, such as, arguably, we once formed with the USSR and, again arguably, we today form with the United States; yet such things are natural in a world order wherein coalitions of interest can be made, and the Indian state’s willingness to enter into them should be seen as an exercise in the nation’s sovereignty, not detraction from it. It would also be fallacious to argue India is not democratic: despite the many failings of its electoral system, India’s people and politicians almost across the spectrum have continually displayed a commitment to the procedures put in place in 1950, even if these institutions need bolstering for our governments to be genuinely representative. These three, then, could be seen as the positive descriptors of the Indian state – the qualities that, princely pockets aside, no one with a stake in the heady politics of the 1940s and ’50s took issue with. It is when we get to the other two that the debate becomes more interesting.

‘Secular’ and ‘socialist’, as descriptors of a state, are laudable goals, at least to my mind, but they should not, because of their preclusive nature, be placed at the origins of a state. It is to say that a non-socialist government cannot be formed in Delhi – a laughable assertion – and that a party espousing non-secular values cannot be a legal member of the Indian political community – even more laughable. It comes as no surprise then that these two terms were added to the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, as if in dilution, during the only time in its independent history that India’s democratic and republication aspirations were genuinely under threat, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Within the vast draconianism of the Forty Second Amendment of the Constitution of India (1976) lay this bold and determinedly political move. Here, then, was the enshrinement of a set of political values substantively different from the character of the Indian state proscribed by the Constituent Assembly. In the intended formulation of the Constituent Assembly, ‘sovereign’, ‘democratic’ and ‘republic’ are suprapolitical
terms, in that they speak of the essence of the Indian state, not the nature of its government. ‘Socialist’ and ‘secular’ do not pass this test. (Caveat: I write that ‘it comes as no surprise’ to learn of this part of the Amendment, but it was a great surprise when I first read of it, as an undergraduate abroad – you’d think in seven years of CBSE-shaped Civics and History lessons through school we might have discussed the implications of such an important development once or twice, but no.)

This trope, that India is socialist and secular, is trotted out so often, in articles and in books, that it demands examination. Socialism is not on the radar of today’s political establishment – so far off it, in fact, that we might actually get a supermajority, even in our mutinous Parliament, were we to put to vote the excision of this term from the Preamble. It is an anachronism, a rotary phone in the Android age. Perhaps it was ever thus. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that India’s pretensions to socialism were always somewhat innocuous, a superficial, ideological sheen given to half-hearted populism. Certainly there was no upsetting of the applecart as far as the real elites were concerned, whether in politics, industry, commerce or agriculture. A blind eye turned to the real entrenchments of capital, and a wildly deleterious emphasis on collective ownership that stymied the economic growth of a talented populace.

Indian secularism has its roots in the French separation of Church and State, but here we mean that the state has no official religion, and that it will not discriminate against any citizen on the basis of her religion. Every religion is valued equally by the state. But – and this is the point – in the political discourse of our times, secularism has come to mean something quite different. Now, here, it means opposition to electoral appeals made on the basis of Hindutva, the “saffron” policies that are the primary electoral plank of parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena. This, I believe, is an act of intellectual dishonesty. Truth told, after the Left’s winnowing to irrelevance, there is not a single major secular party in India. We are now an ethnic party system: parties ride to power on the basis of appeals to ethnicity, whether religion, region, caste or some interplay of two or even all three. Every pronouncement by a television psephologist on how various caste groups will vote en masse is a blow against secularism. The Congress, which long positioned itself India’s secular champion, has in actuality made appeals and calculations all over the country on ethnic considerations. In the last UP Assembly elections it wore the garb of the Dalit Muslim party, but over 65 years it has made appeal to almost the entire gamut of Indian ethnicity – a feat of electoral gymnastics that is quite unmatched.

This narrowing of the definition of secularism into anti-Hindutva tells, perhaps, of the extent to which the Congress has moulded liberal thought in India. But it is also heartening, because it suggests that the liberal Hindu has a real aversion to majoritarian rule, that the spectre of a trishul-wielding, minority terrorising gang of thugs in government is antithetical to his idea of democracy in India. This is perhaps why, as a liberal Muslim, the scenes in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan made me think of all this. The vengeful Muslim mob is nothing I wanted to see again, yet it is an indictment of the nature of Muslim politics since 1947. For 65 years most Muslim votes have gone to one party, based on non-secular appeals. These appeals have largely been emotive instead of substantive: Shah Bano became a national issue while the vital findings of the Sachar Committee were ignored, the reform of Madrassah education, urgently required, is deemed too sensitive a topic, even as “secular” politicians and their flunkies in the mohallas are allowed to stoke up fear and anger about majoritarian encroachment. And now we’ve ended up with this: at the bottom a rudderless community, quick to incite to violence, mired in medieval mores, devoid of intellectual leadership; in between, the gangster-politician, protector not provider; and at the middle and top Muslims like me, eager to remain part of the national conversation, desperate to dust from our hands any responsibility for this malfeasant cohort.

Let me be clear, this is no clarion call for Hindutva. I do believe, especially at the local level, when festival can turn to flare-up, that Muslims, Christians and other minorities are safer under the Congress than under the BJP. But I also believe, 65 years down the line, an Indian Muslim should be entitled to ask for more than safety.

We could begin by looking at the deceptions contained in our Preamble. India is no more secular than it is socialist. Let us acknowledge that first, and then move from there.

Of Mobs and Muslims, the Rushdie Limit and Rushdie Capital

[This is a guest post from Rohit Chopra -eds]

16 excursuses in despair

Sepoy and Lapata have very kindly given me the opportunity to share some thoughts about the Rushdie affair (the new one, at the Jaipur literature festival this year, which, of course, is connected to the old Rushdie affair, 23 years to the day on February 14) on Chapati Mystery, following an effort to express them as tweets yesterday. Here goes my attempt to unpack the events related to the controversy and the subsequent flood of commentary that followed. I will assume the events and many views shared in mainstream media the world over do not need repeating, since the pipes of the Internets and Twitters have been choked with nothing else for the last so many days. The particular reflections below—which, foregoing the artifice of transitions find form as aphorism—do not invalidate each other; that, hopefully, should be clear. For any philosophical contradictions, I remain responsible but might hide behind Wittgenstein.

I thought Rushdie was intimidated and terrorized by the Rajasthan police and Indian state (yes, we can and should use that word, wresting it back from the WOTists or War-on-Terror-ists). A false death threat qualifies surely.

I do not feel the need to prove my credentials here as a defender of free speech.
Nor prove that I am a friend of Muslims. Nor prove that I am a believer. Or a rationalist. Or secular. Or Indian. Or an atheist. The merits of my argument do not, and should not, rest on any of these.

I did not attend the festival, but got a ringside view of the drama on the Internet. I grew sick of it at some point of time, but could not stop reading or reacting on Twitter. This was not just gratuitous rubbernecking if I may say so myself. What bothered me was the way in which the debate had been hijacked—not just by Rushdie’s detractors and critics but, equally, by his supporters—effectively prohibiting the expression of any nuanced political view beyond Rushdie-or-Deobandi. I could not help think. “You are either with us or you are with the enemy”. Where had I heard that before?

If Maulana Nomani of Deoband and his supporters were and are guilty of a revolting piety, then Rushdie’s supporters were and are surely guilty of sanctimony. For instance, in their unfair demand—not unlike a theological diktat—that all right-minded Muslims, Indians, Indian Muslims, lovers of literature, and lovers of free speech everywhere are obligated take up cudgels on behalf of Rushdie. And in their exaggerated claim that such an act will reverse decades of intolerance and make whole India’s compromised modernity and failed enlightenment.

Because such a claim assumes that India is locked, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, in the “waiting room of history,” til Sir Salman of South Bombay and his band of merry men and women usher it in to the clear future of liberal utopia, away from the darkness in which medieval Muslim hordes and Hindu obscurantists keep us. Because it plots a graph of Indian intolerance—Rushdie, Laine, Nasreen, Mistri, Ramanujan—that does not recognize the many ways in which Indians struggle everyday for their rights, including the right of freedom of expression and the right of freedom of religion. And just because the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do not acknowledge these struggles, that does not mean they do not exist.

Because those who paint the Rushdie-Deoband spat as a battle between Gandalf and Sauron should consider if they judge Rushdie’s friends and supporters by the same yardstick. Rushdie’s pals, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Hitchens—the “liberal supremacists” as Terry Eagelton calls the breed— have made the vilest remarks about Muslims, and yet they are touted as great defenders of liberal values. In contrast, anyone who disagrees—even civilly—with the stance of Rushdie and his acolytes is cast as a narrow-minded, unenlightened, bigot.

Eagleton reminds us: “Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis’s slurs on Muslims”

and for good measure,

“The irony is clear. Some of our free literary spirits are defending liberal values in ways that threaten to undermine them. In this, they reflect the behaviour of western states. Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult.”

I found it puzzling that David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, should state at the festival that the Rushdie affair was “a blot on Indian democracy.” This was not postcolonial sensitivity on my part. I wondered if Remnick, a supporter of the Iraq War, would state that the war on Iraq was a blot on American democracy.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Remnick wrote:

“Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.” (italics mine)

I replaced the word ‘liberty’ with ‘freedom of expression’ in the sentence above. Many in India had made the same argument. As had many about the freedom of speech not being absolute in India or anywhere. I do not necessarily agree with them. But why do we see them as enemies of free speech and Remnick as a defender of liberal values?

I thought of another asymmetry. Would an Indian or Pakistani or Kenyan editor be able to declare, at the New Yorker’s festival, that any of the policies of the American state were a ‘disgrace to American democracy’? Would he or she be invited back again? Or get a visa?

Amit Chaudhuri has, in this article fleshed out the sorry implications of the fiasco for freedom of speech in India with devastating thoroughness, identifying with equal precision the sources of intolerance in Indian life. Thus: “In India, though, I get the feeling that the liberal middle class is only dimly aware of the importance of the arts, and how integral they are to the secular imagination, except in a time of media-inflated crisis, when it becomes a ‘free speech’ issue.”

This too is part of the problem.

I also liked this statement “The secular middle class – in which I include myself – needs to learn that free speech can’t be arrived at via a well-mannered compromise with its enemies,” because Chaudhuri speaks of the enemies of free speech here not of the enemies of the middle classes. For sometimes the Indian middle classes decide that their enemies—the poor, illiterate masses who demand some security and subsidies from the state—are also, conveniently, designated as the enemies of modernity, rights, free speech, and correct English.

If it has been clear for some time now that there is such a thing as the ‘Rushdie Limit,’ there is also such a thing as ‘Rushdie Capital’

Rushdie Limit: the point at which people who claim to be defenders of free speech find out they aren’t. Thus, when the Satanic Verses controversy blew up some two decades ago, Jimmy Carter, Germaine Greer and John Berger hit their ‘Rushdie Limit’ pretty quickly. Or if I had to make another sentence, I might say, “after initially defending Rushdie, Hari Kunzru seemed to hit his Rushdie Limit when he wrote on his website ‘I apologise unreservedly to anyone who feels I have disrespected his or her faith.’”

Rushdie Capital: Benefit, tangible and intangible, such as cash, votes, visibility, scoops, or publicity to be gained by supporting or defending Rushdie. Thus Barkha Dutt reminding us on Twitter that she had got the prized Rushdie interview and was going ahead with it. And Kunzru, again, on Twitter, on January 24, about the traffic to his website after he posted his explanation for reading from The Satanic Verses “I think my website is about 500 unique users from falling over. #jlf”

Yes Barkha, we know you are also brave. And that you like the word ‘antediluvian

And that it’s pretty fucking ironic that you claim to stand up for free speech when you are a one-woman chilling effect army threatening to sue anyone who you don’t like.

None of this means that I am equating Rushdie with Maulana Nomani of Deoband. Sometimes these things need to be clarified threadbare.

Because brilliant and courageous as Salman Rushdie is, the histories of Islam, late twentieth-century India, Indian Muslims, and free speech exceed him.

And it is amazing that not a single article on the controversy has actually bothered to discuss the The Satanic Verses. Which is a crying fucking shame because it is a spectacular book. Because it tells us that one person’s sacred verses are another person’s Satanic verses. And it paints a picture of religion as dreamfever quite different from the Marxist claim of religion as opium for the masses. And it shows a writer at the peak of his powers effortlessly claiming, commenting on, and transforming every tradition which sustains him: religious, literary, cultural, civilizational.